Review: Falls Of Rauros – Key To A Vanishing Future
“Good-natured satirists often remark that the best way to cure an Anarchist is to give him a fortune. Substituting ‘corrupt’ for ‘cure’, I would subscribe to this.”
Whither anarchist black metal? The political framework of self-determination in opposition to government has roosted comfortably for decades in the realm of punk (perhaps a bit too comfortably) but I believe the broad genre boundaried as black metal boasts its most lively artistic adherents these days. You’ve got your folksy Panopticons, your raggedy Dawn Ray’ds, your pensive WitTRs, your eclectic Feminazguls, and your sweeping Underdarks, taking up musical arms to shout down patriarchy, racism, colonialism, entrenched hierarchical domination of all stripes wherever they see it. It can’t be merely a reaction to the fascist tendencies of black metal’s most odious propagandists, the National Socialists (and numerous self-declared “apolitical” bands who aren’t fooling anyone). My best guess to start sifting out an answer would be to recall the genre’s potency for beautiful hopes ensconced in miserable failure. Anarchism is, after all, an attractive view to utopians who wish the best world for all, but sullenly believe it to be very distant indeed. For instance, utopians like me.
Today’s subject of study comes as a mainstay of American black metal, the Maine-based Falls Of Rauros. Their newest offering, Key To A Vanishing Future, dropped late last month and has restirred my feelings on radical politics from a long-dormant mire, both by its superb intrumentation and erudite lyricism, but also by (what I read as) its veiled critique of “radical” art from within, both urging to topple the old ways and scorning the ease of letting art act out your ideals for you. The title starts with urgency, a future that might already be lost if we cannot find the way back, and their emphatic focus on taking aim at apathy and defeatism feels like something I myself need to take to heart and shake myself out of. In studying and chewing over this weighty record, and trying to situate myself back into the philosophical world it inhabits, I’ve also had chance to rediscover an old favorite writer of mine from more idealistic days, and found them to be fitting companions.
The accompaniment is Voltairine De Cleyre, an early individualist anarchist whose life and writings are worth examining for the evidence of anarchism’s beautiful ideas and dire, difficult reality, well-suited for the black metal landscape (Dawn Ray’d is also named after a passage of hers, notably). Forced into a convent as a child, eking out a living teaching English to immigrants in Philadelphia, De Cleyre learned to reject religious and nationalistic canards, convictions she grew and maintained through depressive episodes, ailing health, and even a gunshot fired by a disturbed student. Both peer and critic to Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin, her name descended from a still-older (and sometimes contradictory) libertine, much as Falls Of Rauros draw their namesake from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, who was often askewly decribed as somehow both anarchist and monarchist, even feeling split between perspectives in his own writing.
Though her overtures against God and state are easy to transplant to modern sensibilities, De Cleyre also clearly wears blinders of her post-Civil War upbringing, but as with all these figures, you can extract her wisdom without whitewashing her mistakes. From their first track, Rauros exhibit a canny understanding of the trap that awaits in merely transplanting another’s ideas of justice and truth onto yourself. “Clarity” speaks of how “apothegm, in lieu of question” breeds reaction, using puncuated, soft-cymbal accented drums to suck the energy from a coursing guitar line, leaving it aimless and tumultuously stuck running in place, while in the leads above the barest outlines of a chord feel like they’re leading it around in circles until it breaks free by the bridge.
The anti-religious reading of this song is plain, but note also the barbs reserved for “artistry and disregard as a form of refinement, nothing but forged simulacra of awareness held in reverence”. Right out the gate, I think this might be the most biting critique possible on radical art, that the focus on cultivating the right taste to properly elevate what is, ultimately, a mere representation of political action, soon takes the place of that action entirely. Watching riot porn on the internet, collecting a personal library of transhumanist sci-fi, idolizing musicians who live in remote cabins and only take pictures of themselves with a forest background, these can certainly feed the imagination but also sedate the soul, “a last imagined purpose” that “feeds the aesthete”. The second song, “Desert Of Heart”, follows up on this same theme of abandoning responsibility for satisfaction, warning that to “savor the relief of sentence” nurtures an “alibi for the failing of resolve”, leaving the formerly passionate radical as a “stranger to empathy, derelict to society, mendicant… hopeless in the cold.”
Baring my heart for a moment, I’m a pretty bad anarchist these days. Blithe about my beliefs, both living them and challenging them. What the kids call “grillpilled”, happy to accept hopelessness if it means not tearing myself away from material ease or otherwise risking my prosperity. To that end, for a long time, anarchist black metal has been my emotional opiate of choice, a perverse end to the high-minded intentions it was written with. When my coworkers argue politics, I turn up my music and try to ignore it. When I read about Texas and Alabama legislatures turning trans kids into criminals, I vent anonymously on Twitter, but I’m not even out of the closet to any of my family or friends. The likes of Margaret Killjoy and the Weaver Brothers living their chosen lives away in the woods became an escapist fantasy, a comfortable way to evade the complex snarl of living my values in real life. In the first of my revisits to De Cleyre’s body of work, her essay “Why I Am An Anarchist” slugged me flat out with the exact reflection I’ve been avoiding.
“The question ‘why I am an anarchist’ I could very summarily answer with ‘because I cannot help it.’ I cannot be dishonest with myself; the conditions of life press upon me; I must do something with my brain. I cannot be content to regard the world as a mere jumble of happenings… with no other thought than getting through it and getting out. Neither can I be contented to take anyone’s dictum on the subject; the thinking machine will not be quiet.”
Voltairine had “a wild craving after freedom from conventional dress, speech, and custom, an indignation at the repression of one’s real sentiments and the repetition of formal hypocrisies, which constitute the bulk of ordinary social intercourse.” Though her developing philosophy leaned as well on material issues of inequality of wealth, suppression of speech, and overbearing moral hypocrisies of religion, for her the truest expression of her beliefs was in refusing to dismiss any of these as somebody else’s problem, one for the philosophers, but instead breaking from the simplistic life arrayed from her by the Church, and carrying out in earnest her ideals of free thought and education, though she spent her life in poverty for it. Rauros echoes this sentiment further in “Known World Narrows”, a hymn to lost treasured knowledge, crushed from memory by the suffocating grasp of historic suppression.
The first track is well-named, because “Clarity” is the keyword here. The first strong step in Key To A Vanishing Future is a well-conceived texture, one that can realign for subtle effect and reward deep listens with a treasury of tones. Vibrant guitars that wax and wane in pointed intensity, gracefully voiced around one another as though they were dancers, gliding along in heavy thrums both discordant and balanced, or in delicate wisps that bob and curl on the breeze. The bass is no less surefooted, dressed in a fetching warm jacket of reverb and bounding with purpose alongside its brethren. Check out the walking line that opens up “Known World Narrows”, a knowing nod to Death‘s “Spirit Crusher”. Key To A Vanishing Future is not rugged at all, but smoky and pearlescent, moving at crossways to its furious brethren across the anarchist black metal spectrum.
In fact, Falls are working with a dazzling gradient of moods here, all clarified from simple sadness into complex derivatives. Rejection, withdrawal, anxiety, these are not simply lyrical themes but reflected in the posture of the instruments and the arrangement of their musical stories. To my ear, “Daggers In Floodlight” takes the stage feeling closed off, afraid of its own capacity for anger that it gradually rediscovers, and at the same time strains to shape into perseverance. It feels like it is struggling, swaying back and forth, between righteous (but senseless) outburst and a more restrained, harnessed drive of passion. It hates the many flaws in humankind but knows it must resist the temptation of wrath in order to train and grow, rather than commit raging suicide. The bass spins up a maelstrom engine, guitars scrape the spinning surface to sharpen and whet their edges, and stern voicings yield chords that weep and convalesce beneath racing tremolos, seeking and stretching out for any reason to hope.
Lyrically, “Daggers” undercuts desperate longing for freedom with a decided fatalism, but takes the defiant route of persevering anyway, out of a sense of… duty, perhaps? Determination? Pride? Although the stanzas here paint a dead end, with “every path eclipsed, every bolt locked, every advantage hanged”, of walls closing in and connections severed between promising past and fascist future, the song nonetheless implores you to “fan the embers, feed the spirit”, to “carry the torch, reclaim tomorrow”, even as it ends on the pessimistic caution to “exile every hope of success”. There’s a reason the key of the title appears on the cover broken in two, after all. Still, even as a “blanket of ashes masks the sun”, letting the world grow still and cold as a corpse, Rauros urges not to give up the fight.
“Daggers” entwines well into Voltairine’s notion of “The Dominant Idea”, an examination of how fatalism of the mind can bleed into reality, but also how the same is true of determination. She relates first, as metaphor, a story of morning-glory vines by her window that had their stems cut from the roots by some misfortune, but despite her certainty that they would die out, instead willed their last ounces of life to uncurl and face the stars. Her writing here is a critique of letting material limits squash one’s will to live fully and freely, seeing the budding of the flowers as a symbol of their “will beyond death”. But going on, she opines that the social movements of her day burden themselves on the belief that “men are what circumstances make them” rather than the inverse, speaking of forgotten rebels of history who strived to topple their divine kings, formulate scientific truths away from all-encroaching and painfully enforced dogma, and let their ideals power them through lives exiled of all hope for success?
Though it is certainly my own fancy that draws the parallel, I think that the finale, “Poverty Hymn”, bears a particularly direct resemblance to De Cleyre’s poetry, the specific comparison in this being her piece “Light Upon Waldheim”. It considers a mourner passing by the monument to the Haymarket Martyrs that stands in Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago, wherein the dagger-armed statue implores them:
“What do ye here with Death? …
Go forth, go forth! Stand not to weep for these,
Till weakened with your weeping, like the snow
Ye melt, dissolving in a coward peace!”
The matronly monument warns that the freezing wind will not abate, and inaction only leaves you frozen until you are too weak to resist. Instead, says she, take your dagger and finish the job that the martyrs began. In “Poverty Hymn”, similar metaphors are on display, a warning against the folly of trying to weather the unnatural, endless blizzard in apathetic mourning for the already fallen.
“Fallen victim to a calm inauthentic and uneager…
our blades invoke the sun
seeking heart or a bare throat to inaugurate
Weapons born to caution the night,
Desperately hunt in the shadows of their pledge.
Shelter is myth.”
There is no shelter from these piercing winds that can sustain you for long, leaving only your blades to summon a new day, reclaimed for warmth and light.
Musically, you could hardly write a better closer than “Poverty Hymn”, for the way that each guitar’s decisive motion keeps recontextualizing the harmony of the others, interwoven like filigreed Celtic knots. They chase each other higher and higher, and once the song climbs into the icy registers and picks up urgency, there follows a breaking release, like a softening of furrowed brows. Peace and stillness, a canvas wiped clean for the leads to bless with light. Uncurled flecks of chordic pigment dot and seep on the page, for brief moments of realignment. These soloes are yearning, a last beautiful sigh and reminiscence of lost dreams, lost hope. Even the false hope of the past is a comforting memory. It can make you feel warmer in the snowstorm and gently uncurl your frozen fingers, perhaps enough for you to light the match that saves your own life.
Forgive my poetic blather. It is an expression of epiphany, my hands trying to keep up with my heart through this collected work. A surpassing idealism emanates from Key To A Vanishing Future, pushing against narrowing borders of control, trying to transcend the walls before it is crushed between them. It is troubled in the same way that I am troubled, and hopeful in a way I love it for sharing with me. We share fears and uncertainties, and it helps me to find moments of solace that speak to my spirit, as I try again to find my fire and shake off the cold.